Former undocumented immigrants tell stories from the Heartland

I'm in Oklahoma this week for an immigration reporting fellowship called Immigration in the Heartland. I want to tell you about two immigrants I've met who have amazing success stories, Marcelino Garcia and Merys Jimenez.

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Marcelino Garcia

Marcelino Garcia first crossed the border when he was 15. He walked from Tijuana to Los Angeles, a journey he made with little food that lasted eight days.

Garcia, now 47 and a U.S. citizen, today feeds thousands of people each year and employs more than 500 workers.

Over the last 30 years he has built an mini-empire of 12 Mexican restaurants in Oklahoma City called Chelinos and also owns a bakery, an ice cream shop, a meat market and a tortilla-making business.

"My goal was to have a little restaurant where I could work with my family," Garcia said. "My dream, my vision is long."

Garcia has built his empire in a state where immigrants are facing attacks from politicians  who have done everything from tax wire transfers of money to Mexico and phone cards. A 2007 Oklahoma law, HB1804, requires employers to verify a worker's citizenship status.

It forces employers like Garcia to use E-Verify, a government database that checks if a person's work documents are in order. Garcia said that four out of 10 prospective employees do not pass the E-Verify check.

But that doesn't mean all the rejects are undocumented. The E-Verify system has been criticized by immigrant advocates for having errors and Garcia and one of his managers, who are both legally here, were rejected by E-Verify.
 
"Even with good Social Security numbers we didn't pass," said Garcia, who gained legal residency through marriage.

Garcia also said that he can't find enough U.S.-born Oklahomans to work at his restaurant for $7.50 an hour. He's called people on the unemployment rolls, most who reject his offers of work. He has resorted to hiring people from a halfway house, some who have minor criminal backgrounds.

Since the passage of HB1804, his business "never went back to normal," Garcia said.
 

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Merys Jimenez

Merys Jimenez left her native Venezuela in 1994. She flew into the United States on a tourist visa and overstayed. She soon found work as a babysitter in Oklahoma.

In that first job, she worked seven days a week and made $200 a month. Jimenez, who ran a sweet shop in her home country, knew that she was being underpaid as a babysitter. She calculated that in the United States she would make less than a shoe shiner in Venezuela.

But Jimenez stayed because her original goal was to make money and then find a husband.

"I worked Monday to Monday," she said. "I didn't have time to go out or for friends."

Jimenez started going to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Norman and she was one of the parishioners who asked for mass in Spanish. She also started doing volunteer work there.

She visited trailers and found 11 immigrants living together in one trailer home.

"It changed my life," Jimenez said. "I forgot the dollar sign I wanted. I forgot the man I wanted."

Jimenez decided to become a nun. Through the church she got a green card, and today she is a legal permanent resident in the United States.

She is studying theology at Rose State College and wants to help immigrants who like her were once undocumented.

"We all are immigrants," she said.

For full disclosure, I am on a funded fellowship organized by the Institute for Justice and Journalism in partnership with the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication and its Institute for Research and Training. It is funded by a grant from the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE VIDEO

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